If I Was vs. If I Were

By Maeve Maddox

In 1964, when Sheldon Harnick wrote the lyrics for the musical Fiddler on the Roof, he had the poverty-stricken Russian milkman Tevye sing “If I were a rich man.”

In 1992, affluent rock star Bon Jovi sang “If I was your mother,” but then in 2008, Beyoncé sang “If I were a boy.”

Clearly, both forms persist in popular usage.

Curious to see how the two constructions compare in the world of pop music, I searched a site called ReverbNation. According to the search results, “If I Was” and” If I Were” as song titles are tied at “over 500 songs” each.

According to linguist Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), there’s no significant difference between using was or were in what the CGEL calls “the irrealis form of the copula.” (A copula is what linguists call a word that links subject and predicate. Irrealis is unreal.) In Pullum’s view, both “if I was” and “if I were” mean the same thing in such a statement.

A web search will bring up both acceptance and rejection of the “if I was” construction. Merriam-Webster illustrates its discussion of the usage by pointing out that F. Scott Fitzgerald used both forms for statements of unreality. Here are two:

I wish I were twenty-two again … — F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter, 27 Dec. 1925.

… if I was Vassar, I wouldn’t take you … — F. Scott Fitzgerald, letter, 18 Apr. 1938

The M-W editor concludes:

Clearly there is a choice to be made here, and if Fitzgerald could use either form, so can others.

Unfortunately, not everyone will agree with Merriam-Webster on this one. To many people, “I wish I was a rich man” is not standard usage.

There are contexts in which “if I was” can be justified For example, “If she was ill, no wonder she left the party early.”

In a statement that does not describe reality, or the possibility of reality, were is still the better choice–if only because a great many employers, clients, and customers still regard “if I was you” as nonstandard usage.

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14 Responses to “If I Was vs. If I Were”

  • Rich Wheeler

    Merriam-Webster commits defective reasoning by citing dialog from a fictional work to justify using “If I was….” Dialog and narrative imitate colloquial usage and form improper precedents for establishing standard usage.

  • Marci Lindsay

    Don’t forget Simon and Garfunkel singing “I wish I was homeward bound.” Ach.

  • Sophie McAdam

    There´s no doubt linguistically that were is the correct use, it is the subjunctive and is used to talk about a potential situation (if I were a rich man, I would buy a yacht). Was is incorrect in this usage, but it persists because most people aren´t aware that the subjunctive exists in English (it is the same as the present tense in most cases). Et Voila! 🙂

    Sophie (TEFL teacher/journalist)

  • Wayne Groner

    While logic does not always prevail in the English language–or any language–seems to me it’s logical to use “were” for a future event and “was” for a past event.

  • Bob Howell

    Am I just an old-fart linguist, or are other readers a bit surprised at the absence of a brief distinction between the indicative and subjunctive moods as a framework for this discussion? Since Maeve Maddox doesn’t shy away from a term like “the irrealis form of the copula,” I think her readers could manage a description of the subjunctive as a form of a verb used to express a condition contrary to fact. Rich Wheeler’s point about relative levels of discourse formality is well taken, and certainly both forms of the sample expressions are current in the spoken language. But in more formal writing, I’ll stick with the subjunctive. If I were the Grammar Czar, I would have imposed that decree long ago. As for the use of “was” in the sentence about the woman who left the party, that one reads to me more like a conditional expression — in all likelihood, she really was ill — not subjunctive: “If she were the hostess, she’d have to stay at the party.”

  • Alice Kemp

    I had been taught – many, many moons ago – that “were” is the correct verb to use in hypothetical situations. I can’t help but cringe whenever I hear the equivalent of “If I was President…”

  • venqax

    @ Rich Wheeler: The quotes are not from dialogue or fiction. They are from letters, as cited.

    Is does, however, raise the question of whether novelists, even very well regarded ones, should be considered relevant authorities on grammar. I would say maybe, but no necessarily. Citing Fitzgerald’s use of a form doesn’t strike me as particularly convincing of anything.

  • Terry

    Nitty Gritty Grammar is a humorous collection of Charles Schultz’s cartoon characters from Peanuts, and other comics. The one featuring the classroom where the teacher asks the student to give an example of the subjunctive “if” contrary to fact is a far better explanation than anything you’ve provided here. I strongly recommend teachers’ use of Schultz’s characters – what they teach is memorable! Buy the book at Amazon (used) and bring it into your classrooms, post haste! You’ll find this example on page 94.

  • Peter Bernhardt

    You’ve managed to write an article devoid of substance regarding a subject of great importance. There are several excellent articles regarding subjunctive and the proper use of “was” and “were.” This article isn’t one of them.

  • Chris

    My understanding of the use of past subjunctive tense (e.g. “were”), is that if the statement represents something obviously contrary to fact (i.e. an unreal condition), use past subjunctive, but if the condition represents a real possibility then use the past indicative (i.e. “was”). For example, “If he were eight feet tall, he could easily have reached that shelf” (obviously contrary to fact, so use “were”) compared to “if he was standing there when the accident happened, he may have a case” (possibly could be true, use “was”).

  • venqax

    Good grief. What whiney (that’s HWiney) reactions. I think the article did quite a good job of succinctly elucidating an issue, if not dictating a solution, to the subjunctivity we still get pestered with from time to time. The last line clearly states,

    ”In a statement that does not describe reality, or the possibility of reality, were is still the better choice”

    As far as the “if it is a real possibility or not” rule (@Chris), that seems to be a further revision of a rule that itself is in need of defense and it doesn’t appear to have any authority. One thing all the authorities DO seem to agree about is that the subjunctive is very weak in English, and has been for a very long time. Here is my question: Mood is different from tense, for example. So, is its use mandatory? IOW, imagine this exchange:

    Smith: I wish I was at home right now.
    Venqax: You should say, “I wish I were at home right now. It’s the subjunctive mood.
    Smith: Yes, that is correct in the subjunctive. But I am not using the subjunctive. I am expressing my thought, purposely, in the indicative mood. It is quite capable of expressing hypothetical statements too, ya know. So I wish I was is, technically, okey dokey.
    Venqax: umm… Troublemaker!

  • Jim Jacobson

    BOb Howell is right on the money! I wish I were the one to have properly distinguished “were” from “was” by its subjunctive or indicative mood. Well, at least I can try to add some support for Bob’s position by reminding everyone of that English grammar owes its proper choice of mood to Latin, which would never have countenanced Bon Jovi’s, Simon & Garfunkel’s or even Fitzgerald’s misusage. Nevertheless, I believe that such misusages SHOULD be countenanced, if not applauded (well, at least for S&G and Fitzgerald), because of their artistic effect and merit. But artistic license should be the only reason for tolerance or applause: in all ordinary usage, we should follow the Latin lead. Professor Pullum, stick that realis in your copula!

  • Typeaux

    Although I am a technical writer by profession — a profession I hasten to add is full of syntactical irregularities, jargon, techspeak (a specific form of jargon), and otherwise non-literary prose — I am nonetheless bound by the rules imposed on my some 50 years ago in high school. In my current job here in Silicon Valley, I am surrounded by non-native speakers, and have to say that it is these people who most often come to me for help with their writing, wanting the grammar to be correct, rather than the native speakers, who more often than not feel entitled to speak and write their native tongue in whatever manner is most convenient for them. I looked up this forum today because this very question was asked of me by a highly-skilled computer scientist from Lebanon, who asked: “Do they say: ‘…with the one generated if he were to be re-enabled” or “if he was”? I answered that the first was correct, and gave an abbreviated tutorial on the subjunctive case, explaining that it implies wishful thinking, or a condition that does not exist, but could. If I were a carpenter (remember that song?), then I might not care as much. As for popular usage, I experience many examples of poor grammar that I find far more egregious than a failure to differentiate the subjunctive from the indicative. At the same time, I fail to embrace the word “mood” in this case, simply because it implies an emotional state — one that I do not experience when using either the subjunctive or indicative. This, despite the ubiquity with which the term is used in academic writing about the topic. Clearly, this is a flaw in my makeup!

  • John Repass

    I think in some regions stock phrases are well-established – like “If I were you …” in some regions but in other regions probably say “If I was you …” is common.
    Growing up, I would always hear “If I were you …” but “If it wasn’t such a big deal …” etc.

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